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9 July 2015

Reddit’s woman problem

The linksharing site's latest upheaval highlights a deep-seated distrust of women among some users. 

By Barbara Speed

As you may have gathered by now, linksharing site Reddit is going through a bit of a rocky patch. Victoria Taylor, a popular employee who acted as a kind of link between the site’s volunteers and its administration, has left the company – not, it seems, by choice – and in response, moderators the site over pulled the shades on many of its most popular sections (known as “subreddits”). 

The resultant backlash against CEO Ellen Pao has been shot through with ugly strains of both misogyny and racism, hinting that, while most subreddits are now back online, Reddit’s problems are far from over. Pao was already unpopular for her decision to ban controversial subreddits like “fatpeoplehate” and “transfags” last month, but now a petition calling for her removal has collected over 200,000 signatures. Its wording is far less distressing than some of the user-posted comments on anti-Pao subreddits, but it still offers disturbing insight into the minds of those who want her gone.

The petition starts off factually: 

Ellen K. Pao is a lawyer and the Chief Executive Officer of the Internet company Reddit Inc. She was appointed interim CEO of Reddit Inc in November 2014 and Reddit entered into a new age of censorship. 

Then, things take a turn for the worse:

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Pao lost her gender discrimination case against venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, on March 27, 2015. A vast majority of the Reddit community believes that Pao, “a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top”, has overstepped her boundaries and fears that she will run Reddit into the ground. 

To an admittedly small minority of users, Pao evidently represents a threat to their free speech utopia. Last May, in fact, Pao made it clear that Reddit does not aim to be a “completely free-speech platform”. This makes sense, of course: as publishers of the website, the company is liable for whatever is hosted there. Disturbingly, though, Pao’s gender – and her status as a Silicon Valley woman who has taken public action against sexism – are being used as weapons against her. 

Pao’s case against Kleiner Perkins was founded on what sounds like a culture of sneaky, under-the-surface sexism, where male employees weren’t punished for the same “sharp elbows” she was pulled up for in progress reports, and female employees weren’t invited on group ski trips. Pao maintained that for these reasons, her gender held her back from promotion at the company. She lost, but is appealing the decision.

A comparable culture pervades the site she is now responsible for, yet its manifestations are far more open. Reddit is around two-thirds male, and its largest demographic is men between 18 and 29 years old. Back in 2012, one user asked “Why is Reddit so anti-women?” on the AskReddit subreddit. The 2,000-odd posts left in response listed endless examples of women posing as men simply so their posts wouldn’t be downvoted or trolled. 

An interesting explanation put forward by several users on the thread plays into the phenomenon Laurie Penny calls “nerd entitlement”. As user eikaiwar put it, “A lot of guys on reddit are bitter because they view women as having an easier time in areas redditors tend to struggle in.”  In other words, some less confident, “geeky” men find it hard to respect women and the structural prejudice they face, since they, too, may have faced something similar while growing up. 

In the wake of the AskReddit post, The Wire asked Erik Martin, the site’s general manager, for his take on the “woman problem”. He acknowledged that it was “something we’ve thought about and read a lot of commentary about for a long time”. Interestingly, he highlighted Reddit’s roots as a “coder community”. He also implied that the site has a relatively hands-off policy when it comes to issues like this: 

Reddit’s a big enough site that you are going to find horrible, vile people in certain threads and sections.” 

Gender breakdown varies wildly from subreddit to subreddit (“Mommit”, for example, was over 95 per cent female as of last year, while gaming, sports and car subreddits tend to be overwhelmingly male) and Martin also suggests that users should stick to those “communities” in which they feel “comfortable”. Yet TwoXChromosomes, a subreddit for “women’s perspectives”, became a target for trolls when it appeared on the site’s main list of subreddits after a redesign last year. As one user put it at the time, “we can call say goodbye to a safe place on reddit for women”. 

Efforts to curb Reddit’s nasty, underlying sexist culture are necessary – morally, legally (in the case of hate speech and some of the more risque porn subreddits), and for the sake of the users who will steer clear of the site until it cleans up its act. Reddit prides itself on its 20m unique users per month, but it will struggle to build on those numbers it if keeps its reputation as a place where women, and anyone who hopes to curb racist and sexist content, are not welcome. 


Now listen to Barbara discussing Reddit’s woman problem on the NS podcast: